The Politics of Burning Hearts

The Politics of Scripture

We must remember that even when the pandemic is over, this nation will still be under threat by people and forces who have declared war on everything and everyone it defines as “other”. We must remain committed to being hospitable to the stranger, and caring for the most vulnerable.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Luke 24:13-35

Daniella is a 34-year-old Honduran refugee who was released from the Otay Mesa detention center seven months ago; since then she has been living in an LGBTQ+ safehouse in San Diego. After she developed chills, difficulty breathing and six days of a 103-degree fever, she tested positive for COVID-19 at a drive-through test clinic at the University of California. But when she took her paperwork to the hospital, they refused to treat her. Noting that she is undocumented and does not have health insurance, she stated, “It hurts because I am a human being before the eyes of God. It is horrible that they treat me like this and I do not have the right to do anything.”

Daniella is one of many immigrants across the world who are especially vulnerable during the current coronavirus pandemic. While militarizing the southern border and making immigration more difficult had always been on President Trump’s agenda, now his administration is exploiting the Coronavirus pandemic to invoke the legal authority granted to the Surgeon General, closing the border in the name of public health. On March 20, Trump announced the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to all asylum seekers; this border closure violates migrants’ rights as guaranteed by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and leaves thousands of asylum seekers in an even more perilous position as they become stranded in already overcrowded migrant camps at the border

Daniella is going through fear and betrayal, confusion and loss; she is in the midst of trauma, defined as “the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.” This trauma, experienced by all people trapped in the US immigrant detention system, now is overlaid by the trauma caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Trauma is also the backdrop of the text from the Gospel of Luke for the Third Sunday of Easter. Nancy Rockwell describes their mental and physical states as trauma: “the disciples, who were scared sick, who didn’t know what to do, whose minds were racing and who found reason hard to come by, whose palms were sweaty and who were fighting back tears, were walking away from the horror.”

Responding to the fact that the walk of the “Emmaus disciples” has often been romanticized in sermons and religious paintings, Ched Myers adds: “A little narrative common sense … would suggest that the two disciples in our story would be neither leisurely nor calmly reflective … Rather, they would be on the lam, hustling down a back road, getting the hell out of Dodge, so they won’t meet the same fate as their leader.”

Since Emmaus had a reputation for resistance against the Romans, it’s unlikely that these two disciples are “going home” as some commentators suggest; rather, they are co-conspirators running away from the grasp of the political system that just killed Jesus.

While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Luke 24:15-16

Jesus meets them on the road as they are engaged in a heated debate (the Greek word hōmiloun indicates an intense discussion), but they think of him as a stranger. As this stranger seems oddly ignorant of what happened, Cleopas dryly exclaims, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” (V. 18).

They are hopeless, convinced that their hope has died on the cross, and they are clueless, blinded to the divine presence right in front of them by their pain and suffering. Much like a good therapist, Jesus invites them to talk (“What things in Jerusalem? Tell me!”).

And he gets an earful:

“The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.

Luke 24:19-21a

As he gets a sense of how forlorn and sad they are, Jesus challenges their dim view of the world, reminding them of what he has told them before: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (V. 26) Luke reports that Jesus then “interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets” (V. 27).

By the time Jesus has finished explaining Scripture to them, they have arrived at their destination. Jesus pretends to want to leave.

But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:29-32

After the breaking of bread the text records that their eyes were opened. The word used (dianoigo) is the same one used elsewhere to describe the opening of deaf ears (Mark 7:34–35) and a closed womb (Luke 2:23), blind eyes (Luke 24:31) and even a hardened heart (Acts 16:14).

Far from being a dreamy story that has nothing to do with our lives, this story is about us. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Jesus has come to open our ears, eyes and hearts so that we can truly see what is going on. We must remember that even when the pandemic is over, this nation will still be under threat by the empire of President Trump, an empire that has declared war on everything and everyone it defines as “other”. People like Daniella need us to stand up for them. They need us to be disciples whose hearts are burning with commitment in the face of a white supremacist empire that openly mocks our God’s command to be hospitable to the stranger.

As fundamentalist ministers continue to buttress the imperial faith/ideology, we must recover a non-imperial faith. Jesus shows his disciples how to do it, by his very presence and by re-rooting them in Scripture. I am sure that even though their hearts were burning, those hearts were also afraid; nonetheless they decided to stop running away and instead acted on their recovered faith in Jesus:

That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

Luke 24:33

As New York City has been called the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, living and working here at this time is a challenge. My therapist colleagues and I do all our therapy sessions by telephone, yet we still are required to come to the office to do our work, in a hospital filled with illness and death. As we encounter other employees clad in masks and gloves in the empty hallways, fear and trepidation is all around. One of my child patients recently expressed what everyone is feeling: “I don’t want to die!”

While I had been calm throughout the crisis, one weekend about two weeks ago I had a major case of the “heebie jeebies”; my body wasn’t sick, but my soul was. I was afraid. I reached out to many friends, in person and in social media; their words and prayers strengthened and re-oriented my fearful heart as Jesus did with those forlorn disciples. As I began to breathe again, I recovered my faith in Jesus: that since Easter the power of death is countered by the power of life. As I learned to see beyond my own misery, I once again had the strength to think of people who need our help, like Daniella, and the empire we are all up against.

For my own re-rooting in Scripture I often return to Second Corinthians:

… through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive…

2 Corinthians 6:3b-8

8 thoughts on “The Politics of Burning Hearts

  1. This is so very personal for me especially at this time. I find myself exhaling a long breath, not the one I just inhaled, rather the one I have been holding now for weeks, or months- perhaps years. In this season of separation and great loss I have been isolated from my family who live only one hour away, and from friends across town and across the street, but this is acceptable to me in order to keep them safe, as well as myself. I have been physically separated from loved ones in the past and love endured. But the centerpiece of all is that love that is found at the Table where the Lord blesses the bread and the wine and feeds me; and my eyes are opened once again. And again. That is a separation I’ve not endured since I first came to know Him.
    Just the week before I entered into self- isolation I chose to step away from my therapist I’d been talking with for about a year. I could see that it was time, and to stay was to retreat into depression and dependency that led me to his door. It was very difficult and I felt that it may be one of those “last times” that I didn’t want to contemplate. But much like the travelers on the road to Emaus I’d been given a place to voice my own grief, sorrow, pain, disbelief and disappointment in myself. The gift in this was that my therapist is a believer who saw me, heard me and let me discover the truth about my myself. Well some parts and pieces I’d neglected anyway. But more importantly he helped me find my direction again. Just as your essay points me to the road back to my purpose and community I will begin again in 2 Corinthians. Daniella is one who calls me in the night. Perhaps now my sleepless nights may end soon.

    1. Thanks for writing, Rene. My prayers are with you. As you get back on that road, I am sure Jesus will show up in some guise or another and you’ll know what’s next for you …

  2. Fritz, thank you. I read Ched Myers and was blown away by his ‘from the margins’ approach to the Lukan passage. My sermon for this coming Sunday quotes him. Then I got the gift of your writing and now, I am certain your work here will be quoted as well. Thank you for naming trauma as the backdrop to the disciples’ movement. I am familiar with trauma; like that of Daniella, that of the sudden and tragic death of my son, betrayal and the like, this pandemic… You are right about love. It is healing. May your own journey bring you always to that place where you are recovered.

    1. Thank you, Andrea, for your feedback. Thanks to a quirk in the politicaltheology.com platform I didn’t see your response until today, a week later.

      I am glad my essay helped a bit with your own reflection on Jesus and ourselves. I appreciate your encouragement for me as well.

      Blessings on you and your ministry.

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